James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari received heavy praise for its painstakingly recreated period details, and this Saturday, the sound team behind the Oscar-nominated film contends at the 56th Annual Cinema Audio Society (CAS) for Outstanding Achievement in Sound Mixing. At the same event, Mangold will receive CAS’s Filmmaker Award. The recognition tops an extraordinary ride recognizing the incredible efforts behind this brilliantly executed film.
The story of Ken Miles (Christian Bale), Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), and the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans required extensive ingenuity from the many disciplines of filmmaking art from production design to editing to cinematography. Working in close collaboration with those expert crafts teams, the sound editing and sound mixing teams provided the period-authentic sounds of the newly constructed Ford GT40 and the classic Ferrari. Excelling in the final 30-minute stretch of the film, Ford v Ferrari‘s Oscar and CAS-nominated sound design emerges as an intricate and extensive labor of love for its dedicated sound team.
Reading the initial script, the sound team of Don Sylvester (supervising sound editor), Paul Massey (re-recording mixer), and David Giammarco (sound designer / re-recording mixer) knew an unique and intense opportunity laid out before them.
“We I first read the script, I was struck with the historical nature of the storytelling, and I was a little overwhelmed by the notion that we were going to be showing a real race with vintage cars,” Sylvester admitted. “It struck me that we would have to find recordings of vintage cars to play in the film because I knew it would be one of the main elements and would make the story appear genuine.”
The obvious need to prepare authentic sounds for the vehicles rendered in the film did prove to be an initially daunting task. These cars are now over 50 years old and, if still in working condition, would be currently valued at several millions of dollars. Collectors owning such vehicles weren’t likely to let them loose on a race track for a big-budget Hollywood film.
Tops on the “must” list for the sound team were the Ford GT40 and an authentic Ferrari. Fortunately and with some assistance from 20th Century Fox, the sound team did locate a suitable GT40 in Ohio with an owner willing to drive it at the required 200 miles per hour. Although the car would not go fast enough for a long enough period of time to fully recreate the action on-screen, the team still felt the challenge had been met as they had the initial recordings of the car’s heart and soul. The rest could be manipulated in post-production, creating the voice of the GT40 as a character in the film.
With the voices of the Ford GT40 and Ferrari now captured, the team had to ensure the film’s full sound mix featured an ample balance between actors’ dialogue, background cars, spectator cheers, and more. When viewing the first cut of the film, the team saw that mesh of sound input didn’t pass muster, so they began to address issues through multiple avenues. Massey’s mixing process was able to clean up a great deal, but the actors graciously agreed to loop their dialogue to reduce the background car sounds.
“Clarity in the dialogue was obviously a big challenge, and in many cases, we couldn’t use production dialogue simply because of the background engines and other noise. We found, particularly where cars were leading over music, we could clean up some production dialogue enough and hide the odd modern day Chevy engine used in the background,” Massey said. “Obviously in the races, we had a lot of challenges where the rhythm track was very heavy and intense in the music versus suspension and chassis bumps and engine revs. In the sound effects, Dave (Giammarco) and I had to go through and pick out moments to lead each scene as we worked our way through these races.”
When it came to record the sounds of the climactic racing sequence, the team researched news footage to see what Le Mans would have sounded like in 1966. Initial results failed to yield the desired results as most of the available footage boasted narration that drowned out the organic sounds of the event. That forced the sound team to rely on their movie-making skills to design how they imagined the real event would sound.
As Le Mans is an international event, crowds cheer in various European languages – French, English, German, Spanish and so forth. Those details worked in coordination with larger, period-specific sounds to help ground the audience in 1966 France.
“Subtly, there were things going on that we matched picture with that brought us to the time. There was the ABC announcer, the reporters and their typewriters, and the main race cars coming from the era all helped ground us into the time,” Giammarco shared.
While the team nailed the massively complex racing sequences, there were quieter moments in the film where sound and the absence of sound drives character definition and emotion. By pulling back external car sounds and focusing on rapid-fire breathing, the sound team helps the audience get into Ken Miles’s head space in key moments across the film. Similarly, Carroll Shelby calms himself by getting into a car and revving his engine. The roar of the engine provides a soothing experience for Shelby and, by association, the audience as they better understand the character.
“It’s the literal, emotional sound of an engine. We worked very hard to get that engine to sound as smooth and comfortable as we felt it should be,” Sylvester remarked. “That’s a great example of an emotional moment in the film based entirely on sound.”